Benjamin M. Wassell is more than just the state’s first defendant accused of illegal weapon sales under its tough new gun control law.
He’s an Iraq War hero who, despite a traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device that destroyed his vehicle back in 2006, was able to lead other wounded Marines through a minefield to safety, according to loved ones and military records.
The 32-year-old Silver Creek man, who family members say would still be in the Marines had he not been severely injured, is also a devoted husband and father of two young children.
But Wednesday morning in Hanover Town Court, Wassell found himself at the center of the fierce debate spawned by the New York SAFE Act, adopted in response to the slaughter of Connecticut schoolchildren late last year.
Dressed in a dark suit, the hulking man, a towering 6 feet, 5 inches, his hair closely cropped, sat by his wife, who held their 4-month-old son, as more than 75 people, most of them supporters, crowded the courtroom.
“I can’t speak about the case,” Wassell told a reporter.
It didn’t matter.
Others were more than willing to tell the story of Ben Wassell, starting off by saying he was unfairly arrested in an undercover State Police operation based on what his supporters say is an unjust law.
“My son served two terms in Iraq and was wounded twice. He was a sergeant in the Marines. He’s a good man. He’ll do anything for anybody. What they’re doing to him is very unfair,” Dianne Wassell said.
Patrick Hurley, his father-in-law, said that it is hard for Wassell to accept that he is now on the other side of the law.
“This is tearing him up. He’s very patriotic. He has no criminal record,” Hurley said.
Authorities, though, say Wassell flouted the new law by taking advantage of an increased demand for the banned assault-style weapons by adding features to make the two rifles he sold illegal and thereby increase their value.
He is accused of selling a Del-Ton AR-15 rifle, 299 rounds of ammunition and six large-capacity clips for $1,900 on Jan. 24, nine days after the SAFE Act was passed. That gun had an illegal pistol grip, telescoping butt and bayonet mount. On Feb. 24, he allegedly sold an Armalite AR-10 Magnum semiautomatic rifle with 21 rounds of ammunition for $2,600. That gun had a pistol grip.
Wassell is employed by a utility company to check rural gas lines and well heads, and also has a modest disability pension from his war injuries. He reportedly enhanced the guns to earn money to help support his family.
State police, in their complaint, pointed out that Wassell went through with the second sale even though the undercover officer told him he had a felony domestic violence conviction. Felons are prohibited from owning guns.
“In this case, he sold a dangerous assault weapon to an undercover police officer who could have very well been a dangerous felon looking to do harm in our community,” said one law enforcement official familiar with the case.
Wassell also allegedly was selling or attempting to sell several other guns that he had illegally modified.
“He would get the main portion of the gun, the receiver with the barrel, and make modifications, like adding a flash suppressor, telescoping butt, bayonet mount, features that are currently prohibited under the SAFE Act,” the official said.
If convicted on the three felonies and one misdemeanor he is charged with, Wassell could spend up to seven years in prison.
In a sign of how important authorities are taking this first case involving the new gun control law, the New York State Attorney General’s Office is handling the prosecution rather than the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office.
Assistant Attorney General Paul McCarthy, assigned to the case, said a special request was made to State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to handle the case.
“The attorney general prosecutes crimes when requested by a state agency, and in this case it was the State Police making the request,” McCarthy said.
Wassell is being represented by Buffalo attorneys Paul J. Cambria Jr. and Michael S. Deal. Deal entered a not guilty plea on Wassell’s behalf in front Hanover Town Justice Walter Klyczek, who adjourned the case to 2 p.m. April 17.
Outside the courtroom, Deal said he wanted to stress two points.
“Paul and I are looking out for Ben’s best interests. That’s of the utmost importance. Second, it should be known that Ben is a good man, a good father and someone who served in the military and sacrificed his health,” Deal said. “He suffered a traumatic brain injury.”
A Marine Corps “Certificate of Commendation,” obtained by The News, describes how in 2006, during his second seven-month deployment to Iraq with the 1st Marine Logistics Group, Wassell had removed Marines more injured than himself from their vehicle, which had been destroyed by an explosive.
“When the blast occurred, he immediately realized the fuel tank was ruptured. With little regard to his own safety, Wassell escorted the wounded Marines to a recovery vehicle. His quick thinking prevented further injury to the Marines in his vehicle,” the commendation stated.
Among Wassell’s many supporters Wednesday were people he did not know.
“I came here to show support for another veteran,” said Vietnam War veteran Ed McCarty of Hamburg. “It’s illegal what [the police] are doing. They entrapped him.”
Dan Devlin, a Buffalo resident who identified himself as from the Fundamental Human Rights Organization, said state government leaders are denying people a God-given right to defend themselves.
“The Legislature and governor apparently believe citizens don’t have the right to protect themselves,” Devlin said. “Even from a religious standpoint, we are obligated to defend the innocent and that happens to be with firearms or other instruments.”